Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices
by Julius Lipner
Reviewed by H.L. Richard

Routledge, London and New York, 1994

A Lipner study on Hinduism is begun with expectations so high that disappointment is invited and virtually assured. The author carefully disclaims being exhaustive or definitive on his subject (in his Foreword). But this only serves to confirm the high expectations. Here is one who knows the complexity of Hinduism and the magnitude of the challenge of explaining it justly. By the end of the book one is tempted to conclude (against the author's own warning) that this is a definitive statement, so impressively has Lipner presented his material.

This is not a book for light reading. But there are myriad simplistic assumptions (and even outright falsehoods) believed about Hinduism, and it takes more than clich's to clear the air and give a fair presentation. Lipner presents his material in three broad sections, "Guiding voices" (dealing with authority), "Reason and morality" (largely interacting with a central event in the Mahabharata), and "Images of time, space and eternity" (history, sacredness, salvation, etc.).

The opening introductory chapter wrestles with the very concept of "Hinduism". Nine definitions from other scholars, vastly varying and at places even contradictory are quoted to demonstrate the complexity of the subject. Lipner opposes any effort to find "an essentialist definition of Hinduism", saying rather that, "Hinduism is an acceptable abbreviation for a family of culturally similar traditions" (pg 6, italics his). In other words, "To be a Hindu is to be culturally, not necessarily religiously, marked in some way" (pg 13).

Two illustrations are helpful in clarifying matters. Hinduism itself is like a banyan tree, even particularly the great banyan that covers 4 acres in the Calcutta botanical gardens. New shoots continue to put down new roots, often growing to look like trees in their own right but always interlinked with the larger whole and sharing common sap.

The Vedic heart of the great Hindu banyan is well analysed by Lipner. The spread of Vedic authority to later texts without anything near adequate justification is one of the most vital points to note in the study of Hinduism. Lipner's summary is worth quoting: "the Scriptural authority of the Vedas is being made to leap-frog, usually over an exegetical gap (rarely via an interpretive bridge), into a new textual locus to legitimise teaching that to all intents and purposes seems to be very different from what we find in the 'true' Vedas" (pg 60).

Lipner touches all the main streams of Hindu thought and balances references to traditional and modern Hinduism. The artificiality of seeking a definitive text of the great Hindu epics is helpfully noted. An oral tradition can never be definitively locked into a text, and the fluidity of this tradition contributes to the continued adaptability of Hindus and Hinduism.

This book bristles with insights, far too many to consider attempting a list here. As examples note the warning (rebuke even) against misrepresenting the Upanishads as granting immunity from basic morality for the enlightened, and the observation that the jnana (knowledge) that brings salvation is not fairly compared to Greek gnosis, especially since jnana is generally related to a caring God who acts for human salvation (the extended analysis on pg 215f bears careful study).

A few errors, called to this reviewer's notice by G. Gispert-Sauch in his review in Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection (Vol. 58, No. 8, Aug. 1994) should be noted. An extra zero on page 78 inflates the number of sutras (4000 in fact) in the famous Sanskrit grammar of Panini. On page 133 "Arjuna and Krishna" should read "Arjuna chooses Krishna".

The second particularly illuminating Lipner illustration is that of his own presentation of Hinduism as rather like a cobweb. The interconnecting strands of the web make up a whole, and the inter-relation of various strands can be traced out. Yet on the whole there is more open space, more omission, than actual substance. "The Ancient Banyan is too vast in space and time, too complex to be dealt with comprehensively within the pages of a library, let alone a single volume" (pg 20). But as single volumes go, this one is hard to surpass and will be appreciated by all who wrestle with understanding the Hindu mind and world.

Voice of Bhakti welcomes interaction with its readers. If you have a comment please email the editor at the address below. Mark Johnson, editor

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